Lefty, Tiger face deep Masters pool
At every major championship, the list of viable contenders usually is short. An unlikely suspect such as Louis Oosthuizen or Y.E. Yang wins now and then with the week of his life, but not often.
The elite players have been especially dominant at the Masters for more than a decade. To don the Green Jacket, you usually had to beat Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who have combined to win the first major of the year seven times since 1997.
However, when the best golfers in the world tee off Thursday at Augusta National, that list has gotten a little longer, again because of Tiger and Lefty.
As they struggled in the last year, other players have stepped up, with many more of them believing they can win.
"I think it's one of most open Masters in probably the last 10 years," Ernie Els, a three-time major champion who never has won at Augusta, said two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "The way the world of golf has gone over the last year or so, there are so many guys that have come through and really shown their form.
"You look at Graeme McDowell, you look at (Martin) Kaymer, obviously Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, I think has got a really good chance there, and obviously Tiger and Phil. They might not even take their best games in there, but they arrive there and they feel good about it, especially Phil.
"I would say Phil is probably the favorite and Tiger second favorite still, even if they don't play very well leading in there."
The oddsmakers saw it a little differently. Woods was the favorite, followed by Mickelson, Westwood, Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, McDowell, Paul Casey and Luke Donald on most books.
That was until Lefty captured the Shell Houston Open on Sunday, shifting the odds.
The darkhorse choice seems to be Nick Watney, who has played well at Augusta National, finishing in the top 20 in each of his first three Masters appearances.
That Woods and Mickelson remain the 1-2, or 2-1, favorites has to be attributed to the Magnolia Lane Effect, or what comes over them when they take the most famous drive in golf on the way to the clubhouse at Augusta.
Lefty had only one top-10 finish in seven events last year before he claimed his fourth major title, by three strokes over Westwood, and it would be no surprise if he did it again after another disappointing season until last week.
"I have this feeling of confidence, that I know how to play the golf course, that I don't have to play it perfectly, and that the strength of my game, which is my short game, can often save or salvage rounds and pars for me and keep me in contention," said Mickelson, who has finished out of the top 10 in the Masters only once in the last 12 years.
"It's a great feeling of confidence when I drive through the gates of Magnolia (Lane), and I think that's been one of the reasons why I've been successful there."
Woods is much the same even though he has not won the Masters since 2005. He has finished in the top 10 in each of the last six years and 11 times in 14 tries since winning the first of his four Green Jackets in 1997.
His tie for fourth last year in his first start since his personal life fell apart in the months after November 2009 remains the most impressive performance he has had since his return.
"There are certain golf courses where I feel pretty good and comfortable no matter how my form is going into it, and Augusta is one of them," said Woods, who has finished in the top 10 only once this season.
"Over the years I've won there a few times, but the majority of my finishes have been pretty high. Golf course fits my game."
If not Phil or Tiger, look to Europe.
The Europeans are playing the best golf over the last year or so and hold six spots in the top 10 of the World Golf Rankings, including the first four until Mickelson moved to No. 3 by winning in Houston.
However, the Euros have not had a Masters champion since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999.
Colin Montgomerie, for one, believes that will change this year and even tells us who it will be.
"With Westwood's success at the Masters (last) year, I think he'll win the first major of the year," Monty said at the 2010 European Tour Golfer of the Year luncheon in London.
"Lee has been second or third on a number of occasions now, but I think the fact that the No. 1 status (late in 2010 and early 2011) has not affected him in any shape or form, in fact it has just increased his confidence. I feel that will run into a win in the Masters."
Westwood has finished in the top three in four of the last five majors and is overdue for a major breakthrough.
If form holds, he will have to beat Phil and/or Tiger.